The man in charge of the hunt for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 believes it is “very likely” the plane will be found in the next four months, even as the multimillion dollar search effort enters what is likely to be its final stage.
In the two years since the plane disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, its only confirmed trace has been a barnacle-encrusted flaperon wing that washed up on the French island of Réunion last July.
Two other pieces of flotsam, found on Réunion and Mozambique, are suspected to come from the plane, but are yet to be positively identified.
Yet Martin Dolan, the head of the Australian authority tasked with scouring an expanse of seafloor for the wreck of the aircraft, is confident it will be found this year.
Since 31 March 2014, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has led the search effort for the plane, driven by what its investigators have always considered to be the most likely scenario – known as the “ghost flight” theory – that no-one was at the controls when the jet went down.
The ATSB’s modelling shows that, after running out of fuel, the plane would have crashed in the southern Indian ocean, off the coast of Western Australia. As of this month, four ships have searched more than 85,000sq km of a long but narrow “seventh arc”, totalling 120,000sq km of seafloor – without success.
To Dolan, that suggests that the plane is in the 30,000-odd sq km yet to be searched, and will be found when the operation concludes around July, if not before.
“It’s as likely on the last day [of the search] as on the first that the aircraft would be there. We’ve covered nearly three-quarters of the search area, and since we haven’t found the aircraft in those areas, that increases the likelihood that it’s in the areas we haven’t looked at yet.”
At this late stage, Dolan is aware that his assurance could seem like blind optimism, or a bid to save face over a US $133.3m operation – paid for by Australia and Malaysia, plus $14.8m in funding and equipment from China – that has already been said to have failed.
The search zone – twice the size of Tasmania – shows a range of places the plane could be, some higher probability than others. “We now know that there’s a range of those places the aircraft isn’t in, but that hasn’t changed the overall probability that the aircraft is in the total search area,” Dolan said.
“To eliminate that from the search – assuming we don’t find the aircraft – we have the cover the whole area.”
The complexities surrounding the search are immense: the area is six days’ sail from the nearest shore and previously unmapped, with water depths of up to 6,000m and underwater mountains, crevasses and 2,000m sheer drops. It is being covered at a rate of two knots – about walking pace. The Guardian